The Sixth Sunday of Easter May 1, 2016
212(1-4), 738 [TLH alt. 213], 216, 212(5-6)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
May the risen and ascended Lord live forever in your heart as your closest friend and ally. Amen.
Dear fellow Christians:
To say that I am opposed to the lottery is something akin to a lamb saying that he is “anti-wolf.” One word sums up the whole sordid mess of gambling: Loser. The point is that if you play and don’t win, you lose; but if you play and win, you lose even more. In fact, just playing tends to foster the notion that “something-for-nothing” is good, rather than good, honest work and eating the God-given fruit of your labors.
The point here is not that I am encouraging you in the strongest of terms to avoid the lottery like lambs avoid wolves—although I am, it is, rather, to point out an interesting anomaly in those who are awarded some sort of payment. This interesting anomaly in turn teaches us something about ourselves.
Most human beings tend to be nearsighted. We are long on instant gratification and short on trust, and we tend to make decisions accordingly. So it is interesting to hear that the vast majority of those who win big lottery jackpots choose to take a much smaller, but instant, lump-sum payment up front, rather than opt for annual payments that always add up to substantially more money. Apparently it is better to blow the money all at once, rather than stretch it out over many years.
Apply this to the somewhat neglected event in the Christian Church year known as Ascension—the actual day of Ascension is this Thursday, 40 days after Easter. What we will uncover in our study of Christ’s ascension is not only selfishness on the part of us sinners, but also a profound lack of appreciation for the great things that lie ahead.
The Church’s celebration of the Ascension is almost non-existent, no doubt due in large part to the fact that Christs ascension is mostly about future promises—good things that lie somewhere in the distant future. Add to that the fact that we tend to be more subdued in our celebration of the good things that happen to others, and it’s not hard to see why the Ascension passes mostly unnoticed.
Today, we seek to remedy that problem as we struggle to gain a better understanding of the meaning and promise of Jesus’s ascension and thereby be filled with comfort and eager expectation concerning this event. Our study of God’s Word is centered around the theme: “The Second Proof.”
The text that will guide our study is found in the first chapter of the Book of Acts:
Being assembled together with [the disciples], [Jesus] commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, “which,” He said, “you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.
So far the words of our God. Bear in mind that these are God’s Words, not the words of fallible man. Eager to be instructed and uplifted by God’s own words, we pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
Unlike Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter, we need to be reminded each year of the glory and benefit of the Ascension of Jesus. Why is that? The answer lies both in our own self-centeredness and in our natural impatience. First, our self-centeredness. Ascension is actually not our holiday, is it? Not really. It belongs, for the most part, to our Lord Jesus. Think of it. If you were Christ Jesus, where would you rather spend your time, in Heaven or on earth? Wouldn’t you be anxious to return to Heaven to be with your Heavenly Father and exist in the perfect bliss of paradise—especially if you had once known what that place was really like?
Clearly. Who wouldn’t want to be there right this minute? The Apostle Paul certainly agreed. In his Letter to the Philippians he said “But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. ForI am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:22-23).
Jesus obviously held the same sentiment. The Ascension was the day He got to go home—victorious! And what a home! The Ascension is therefore a unique holiday in that it is not all about us. We find it easy to overlook Ascension because this festival, for the most part, was Jesus’ great day as He returned to the glory and bliss of His Father’s side in heaven.
Clearly then, the Ascension is worthy of our focus and attention because of what it meant for our Savior. That’s not to say there’s nothing in it for you and me. The problem is that the Ascension holds mostly promise and potential for us, and that’s where our impatience and inclination towards instant gratification work against us. Since we have little patience for the promise of even good things if those things lie in the distant future, we are perfectly content to let this holiday slide by unobserved. It is ironic that we have little trouble criticizing others for their obvious faults—even Jesus’ disciples. Here we find evidence that we can be just as cold, just as self-centered, and just as impatient as the worst of them. Jesus surely did come to save sinners, didn’t he?
The word the Bible uses to describe how these men were staring off into space is the same as it uses to describe how the Children of Israel stared at the glowing face of Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai, and how Stephen stared at the vision of angels when he was being stoned. Surely this event was absolutely amazing to those who witnessed it. Who knows how long the disciples stood there, or how long they would have stood there had not the two men dressed in white arrived. The angels asked the same question anyone walking up to a similar group today would ask, “What are you looking at? Why do you stand looking into heaven?” The angels, of course, knew the answer, so with the question they offered an explanation—a promise—the great promise of the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ: “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (v. 11).
Stop for a moment and contemplate the absolute reality of that simple statement of truth from the angels. Jesus will one day return to this earth as he once left at His ascension. What a terrific, heart-lifting thought. Jesus is coming back—at any moment.
Jesus is coming back for us, because He made us clean. Jesus returned at His ascension to the Father, and He could only do so if he was victorious—that is, He could only return to His Father if he had actually accomplished His Father’s mission. The fact that He returned means He did what He came to do. What did He come to do? He came to suffer Hell in our place. He came to save us from the eternal damnation which, because of our sins, we had rightly earned.
That is how and why the Ascension serves as the great “second proof” of Jesus’ successful completion of His earthy mission to open Heaven’s doors to sinners like you and me. The first proof, of course, was Easter Sunday and his resurrection from the dead. You know well the test or proof that Jesus Himself laid out for us: If the tomb is empty on the third day, know that I succeeded and victory is both mine and yours. If I am still in the tomb after the third day, I failed—and your last best hope is also gone.
The second great proof was the Ascension, which ought to hold the same place in the human heart as does the empty tomb of Easter Sunday. Every time we “see” our Lord ascend back into Heaven through the account of the eye-witnesses, we ought to remind ourselves of the fact that this very ascension is a declaration from God that the full debt for our sins has been paid by our Savior.
This is the first part of the “What’s in it for us?” Yet, we also want to note the last words spoken to the disciples by the Savior to learn more of “What’s in it for us?” “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Mein Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (v.8).
The disciples had to be weaned from their Savior. They were lost without Him until the Holy Spirit was sent on Pentecost. For reasons known only to God Himself, the Holy Spirit could not be sent until Christ had ascended to be with the Father in Heaven. Jesus said: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7).
This teaches us more of “what’s in it for us” when it comes to the Ascension, for it is the ongoing promise of better things to come. The Ascension was a necessary step in the chain of events that would lead up to Pentecost. We sinful human beings were too slow and foolish to understand the truths of Scripture without the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit could not come until Christ had ascended to the Father. Only after Pentecost, when the gift of greater understanding was given by the Spirit, did the disciples really comprehend what Jesus had been talking about for all those years. In his first sermon after Pentecost, Peter demonstrates a marvelous growth in his Christian understanding. Listen to his inspired words to the Pentecost crowd, and compare them to the rather foolish question the disciples asked Jesus at His ascension. In his sermon, Peter said: “This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore, being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).
Finally, do yourself yet one more favor as you commemorate this great event: See our Savior as He is now, in His heavenly home and seated at His Father’s right hand in all majesty, power, and glory.
Why is this so important? Why is this so beneficial? Because this is our God. This is the Savior who will come again. This is the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth who even now speaks to the Father in our behalf. We do not now worship a weak, impotent, humbled God. Our God has power and ability beyond our human comprehension. We do not worship and glorify him because we think He needs it. We do so because He deserves it. Such a God can and will do whatever is best for us, a fact made all the more sure by knowing that He has already done the single greatest thing He could ever have done for us. He saved us.
All praise and thanks be to God the Son as we prepare to celebrate His Ascension. Sing His praise and rejoice in the perfect, holy reunion of Father and Son in Heaven. This is good and right for His thankful children to do. Yet in doing so, don’t be selfish and don’t forget the last words that He spoke not only to His disciples then but to His disciples of every age and time: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (v.8).
As we wait with eager anticipation for our glorified Lord to return, He gave us work to do — glorious, life-changing work. We are Christ’s witnesses. Honor him now by spreading the good news that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah who came to earth, lived the perfect life for us, and died an innocent death in our place. Because of what Jesus has done, salvation is ours—free and complete. The debt of sin has been paid in full. Until He returns, tell it like it is. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.