Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter/Ascension
|Text: Acts 1:9
He (Jesus) was taken up to heaven as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Majesty and ministry
The story is told about the Ascension Day celebrations at a particular seminary. A special Ascension Day service was held and the whole seminary in robes and regalia gathered for the big celebration. It was quite an event. The service ended and the assembly processed from the chapel. Unknown to the worshippers, a group of somewhat creative lads had found a near life-size Styrofoam mannequin with extended arms. They strapped fireworks – the sky rocket type – to the arms and body of the mannequin.
As the procession marched into the courtyard, the students lit the fuses, trying to light them all simultaneously but not quite managing it, sending the mannequin spiralling out of the shrubbery through a cloud of smoke and sparks. It buzzed over the scattering members of the procession, finally taking a nosedive on top of a professor’s car in the driveway of the seminary. There the ascension rocket sputtered and died leaving a blackened patch matching the darkening mood on the face of the car’s owner. The head of the seminary was not impressed with the students’ explanation that they were simply trying to dramatise the ascension of Jesus.
At least one thing can be said about that Ascension Day celebration is that it has never been forgotten by those who witnessed it.
For the disciples watching Jesus ascend into heaven, it must have been an amazing moment and with Pentecost just days away it became a turning point in their lives. In parts of the church Ascension Day is as important as Good Friday and Easter and is marked by a public holiday. Artwork depicting the Ascension of Jesus or Jesus the Ruler adorns many churches especially in eastern Europe and while here in Australia most people were completely oblivious to the fact that last Thursday was Ascension Day and generally we don’t talk a lot about Jesus' ascension compared to his crucifixion and resurrection.
It might even be asked why we even need to celebrate the ascension of Jesus? We have Good Friday and Easter – do we really need anything more?
Believe it or not Christ’s ascension to heaven adds quite a bit to our understanding of the Son of God and God’s work of salvation. St Augustine expressed his opinion about Ascension Day like this, “This is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together … For unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing ... and his Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless.” In other words, Christ’s ascension is in an essential part of the gospel message.
Today I want to look at the Ascension from two points of view – the majesty and then the ministry of the ascended Jesus.
Firstly, the majesty of the ascended Jesus. The details of what happened that day outside of Bethany are sketchy. Luke simply tells us, “He was taken up to heaven as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). The cloud that hid Jesus from their sight had nothing to do with the atmospheric conditions that day. This cloud was no ordinary cloud; it signified the divine presence of God. This is the same cloud that led the people of Israel in the wilderness; the same cloud that covered Mt Sinai; the same cloud that settled on the Mount of Transfiguration; into that same divine cloud the faithful will be gathered to meet Christ when he comes again (1 Thess 4:17).
Jesus being lifted up into this cloud represents his exaltation to the highest
place as Lord of all.
The Apostle Paul put it like this:
Then God gave Christ the highest place and honoured his name above all others. So at the name of Jesus everyone will bow down, those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. And to the glory of God the Father everyone will openly agree, "Jesus Christ is Lord!" (Phil 2:9-11 CEV).
“Jesus Christ is Lord”. Jesus is Lord, not only over suffering and death, but also over the nations, the principalities and powers that threaten both the present and the future, and that includes the power of Satan. The Book of Revelation gives us a picture of the majesty of the Son of God. The image is of the Son of God who is high and lifted up, sitting on a throne with angels bowing before him in constant praise. We read:
heard all beings in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and in the sea
offer praise. Together, all of them were saying,
‘Praise, honour, glory, and strength forever and ever
to the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!’” (Rev 5:13,14 CEV)
With this majesty there comes
mastery. He has all power and
authority. Don’t we say in the
Apostles’ Creed, “He ascended to heaven and sits the right hand of God the
Father almighty”? The mention of the
right hand is a symbol of power.
Paul talks about Christ sitting at God's right hand when he says,
“Christ rules over all forces, authorities, powers, and rulers.
He rules over all beings in this world and will rule in the future world as well.
God has put all things under the power of Christ, and for the good of the church he has made him the head of everything.
The church is Christ's body and is filled with Christ who completely fills everything” (Ephesians 1:21-23 CEV)
I think you get the picture. Jesus Christ has no rival to his power in this world or in the spirit world. He is eternally triumphant and he will reign forever more! His power far exceeds that of Satan or death. In this age of many gods and many many philosophies we don’t say it enough – Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus Christ is the only way, the only truth and the only life and the only way to eternal life.
Jesus has ascended to throne above all thrones but that doesn’t mean he has lost touch with life in this world.
That leads me to my second point – the ministry of Jesus. There is little point in having a God who is exalted and majestic, if he doesn’t touch our lives in some way. The queen in Buckingham Palace in London who is surrounded by majesty and honour has very little effect on our everyday lives. If suddenly the monarchy as head of state in Australia was abolished, I’m sure our lives would hardly be affected. That can’t be said about Jesus.
As Jesus was ascending to heaven we are told by Luke that “he raised his hands and blessed them (the disciples) (Luke 24:50,51). This is a very significant action. He had just told the disciples that they were to be his witnesses of the things they had seen and heard. He was telling them and us how important it is to reach out to those who don't yet know about the Saviour of the world. I’m sure he knew just how difficult this task was going to be. And so Jesus raises his arms and gives his blessing, his reassurance that he will be present with them as they face all kinds of difficulties. “I will be with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20), he says. Letting my imagination run a bit I can visualise Jesus slowly ascending and as he gets further away he calls – "Don't forget, guys, I will always be with you."
We may not
be able to see him with our eyes, but his presence is still with us.
When it seems that life has caved in around us – failing finances, the fear of world disasters, the threat of disease and death, guilt that never seems to go away, relationships that don’t get any better – the presence of Jesus is never far away.
When it seems that we will never overcome our temptations, that sin is always getting the upper hand in our life, Jesus is never far away with his forgiveness and grace.
When it seems that all there is in the future is gloom, hopelessness, worry, and death, Jesus reminds us – “I am with you always” – not just for a while but always until the end of our days, until the end of time if need be.
Christ who has endured all that we endure is a powerful friend to have as we face all that troubles and distress that can come our way. He knows what it’s like to face these things and he understands when we call out to him; he answers our groans and sighs with love and compassion; he has defeated all that wants to harm us. He uses his power to answer our prayers.
He even prays for us before the throne of God. It’s great to know when people are praying for us but when we are told that Jesus is praying for us, that’s quite something. The ascension assures us that our future is secure in the hands of the Lord of all. Jesus raises his hands of blessing over us.
Jesus doesn’t only minister to us – he ministers to others through us. I have already touched on the importance that Jesus placed on being his witnesses.
An ancient legend tells of the return of Jesus to glory after his time on earth. Even in heaven he bore the marks of his earthly pilgrimage with its cruel cross and shameful death. The angel Gabriel approached him and said, “Master, you suffered terribly down there. Do they know and appreciate how much you loved them and what you did for them?”
Jesus replied, “Oh, no! Not yet. Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know.”
But Gabriel was perplexed. He asked, “Then how will people learn of what have you done and your love for them?”
Jesus said, “I have asked Peter, James, John, and a few more friends to tell others about me. Those who are told will tell others in turn. And my story will be spread to the farthest reaches of the globe. Ultimately, all of humankind will have heard.”
Gabriel frowned and looked rather sceptical. He knew what poor stuff humans were made of. He said, “Yes, but what if Peter and James and John grow weary? What if the people who come after them forget? What if they just fail to tell? What is your alternate plan?”
Jesus answered, “There is no other plan.”
others get to know of God's saving grace and the power and the love of Christ
available to them, if not through us?
Through us his disciples Jesus brings comfort to the sick and the dying, he gives friendship to the lonely and the stranger.
Through us he comes into the hearts of others when we grasp windows of opportunity that arise in our daily dealings with others to share what it means to know Christ and the comfort that comes from knowing that he is near and ready to help in times of need.
When those disciples had seen Jesus ascend they went back to Jerusalem where they worshipped God. Today let us join with them and with those gathered around the heavenly throne and give glory to our ascended Lord and King who has promised his help and presence as we live in this age before his Second Coming. Let's get on with it and live for Jesus carrying out the work he has given us to do.
CEV - Contemporary English Version © 1995 The Bible Society in Australia
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
1st June 2014